making oxygen, remaining inside this pure hollow note
by M. Ann Reed
Finishing Line Press, 2020
reviewed by Sakina B. Fakhri
This review originally appeared on the Oregon Poetry Association in July, 2022.
The poems in M. Ann Reed’s making oxygen, remaining inside this pure hollow note invite the reader into the hollow growing point we share with plants – the silent note through which, as the author says in the preface, we breathe soul-life into words, words into musical patterns, musical patterns into images, all literary features into meaning. And so this book unravels, teaching the reader how to read it as it proceeds with a sense of movement without propulsion – a sense of moving-with instead of moving-towards. The words do not merely transform, but transform with the reader.
The final note of each poem lingers into the beginning of the next one, and thus all contribute to an intricately composed respiration, one that satisfies the journey promised in the Preface: that uncanny, fraught, beautiful, holy act of making oxygen.
Reed’s musical speech delivers an alliterated conduit to an intimate, perhaps unexpected experience – a brave exercise in relentless compassion. We wait for the critique that does not come, until we find permission to settle into these uninterrupted rhythms and images that connect the very vast – the Whirlpool Galaxy Madonna’s lit candle—to the very small—a phoenix-flame inside drops of rain (“Did you rise or fall from the cloud of unknowing?). Each poem adds a layer and yet somehow contributes to a lightness in the whole.
Consider how the initial poems move us beyond honoring the dream of a child bringing oxygen, escape, and restoration to victims of a Nazi concentration camp into “Van Cliburn’s page-turner,” celebrating a Rosh Hashanah song praying the music
into time is not.
The music leads us into the dense poem, “Rain-forest ecstasy”: the climax of the book’s musical pattern beginning with
tangerine monkeys spring on ancient banana feet _______________applaud(dash)ing
Following this entrance,
(choose) rush of breath a blueprint electric of dots and dash
_______ across apricot tiger flats
All voices join the hush at the center of the page where Quetzal feathers whisper
the chanting edge of Dolphins
their erotic brother wears a coat of rain
it takes the swaddling stillness of Penguins to keep the balance of living beings
After participating in the ecstasy of rainforest animals, we may contemplate
the title, “Did you rise or fall from the cloud of unknowing?” Words and letters are disarranged and rearranged by their shifting context throughout the poem, smoothed through delicate alliteration:
Rain sings tonight.
Each drop holds a pear-shaped flame.
Paradrops fall to form fluent silk screens.
. . .
Pears fall from the sky.
. . .
You are a paradox.
The poet cares for these threads for us; we can trust that they will gently fall to the bottom of the poem like a light rain, so we are content to follow them—to watch the “pear” drift in all of its forms, to feel the grandness and the ephemerality––the act of making meaningful music through the sounds of words.
The shaped meaning—the idea that a spiritual flame can survive in water––evokes the question: so where else can what else survive? Much survives––including “Rumi’s Guesthouse, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina” beginning with a horrifying vestige of destruction and loss:
Ancient stones had received the bullets,
ejected hostile guests. Still
(mason’s lace rudely interrupted, kindly intact)
foundation and framework hold true—accept
the redolent arms they had once restricted––accept
earth’s green embrace.
The caesura at the end of the second line is nothing short of striking—and yet we must wait past the parenthetical, we must be still, for what still exists—the contrast to the bullets is followed by another pause: accept. The acceptance of the poem is an opening of arms to the life, the verdancy that time returns to the ruins. The roof ripped away to open sky; moss on the edifice. The halting cadence soon opens a gate to a poetic movement that feels like plucked harp strings—
dithrambic struck strings
comings and goings
of fluttering things,
––short lines that vibrate sweetly—that fall into an unanticipated rhyming pattern as one relaxes into celebrating a new music shaped by syncopated steps. And where do the steps lead us? Through a growing point to realization that we are
not made of stone
but fragile flesh
challenged to grow
more nimble-minded and humane.
The collection rounds to the closing poem, “Reclaiming Night Persephone’s choice,” a critical and compassionate reflection on the fall of Icarus and the plight of Andromeda.
As a whole, making oxygen: remaining inside this pure hollow note carries us to a place to breathe differently and to look at ourselves and our universe with a compassionate vulnerability. It does what I feel meaningful art should: In the wise words of Zadie Smith, it rewires [our] inner circuitry.